- The Washington Times - Monday, January 2, 2012

DES MOINES, Iowa — Four years after a second-place finish in Iowa’s caucuses mortally wounded his campaign, Mitt Romney is counting on the state to write a different story on Tuesday — a win here could go a long way toward sewing up the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

But Mr. Romney, who made his first campaign trip to Iowa more than six years ago, still has not sealed matters with voters here, and their search for an anyone-but-Romney candidate has defined the 2012 campaign.

“We’re going to win this thing with all of our passion and strength,” Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said Monday night, setting a high bar for himself.

Five opponents are competing in Iowa to beat him, and for much of the year, they have jockeyed for the mantle of the non-Romney candidate, trading the lead in the polls in what may well be the most volatile campaign in Iowa history.

Now, in a final twist, the one person who has never held a lead, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, may have the best shot at topping Mr. Romney and becoming the candidate who unites conservatives.

Also threatening Mr. Romney’s storybook ending here is Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who, like Mr. Romney, competed here in 2008 and says the intervening four years have pushed the country in his direction.

Supporters chanted Mr. Paul’s name as he took the stage Monday at a hotel in the state’s capital, Des Moines, to rally supporters.

“The excitement has built steadily, and the campaign has been remarkable in the organization. The funds have come in,” Mr. Paul told them. His son, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, predicted a “win in Iowa.”

The elder Mr. Paul had taken the weekend off from campaigning, but he and the others spread out across the state Monday, wrangling for every last voter. In caucuses, that matters.

In 2008, the winner, Mike Huckabee, won with fewer than 41,000 votes, out of a total of fewer than 120,000 cast. That low ceiling means winning voters one by one.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry campaigned in the state’s northwest, while Rep. Michele Bachmann stayed close to Des Moines.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose campaign has slid in the polls, conceded he would not win here and blamed a barrage of attack ads aimed at him.

Voters said the ads were overwhelming, and many said they just tuned them out — but analysts said they had the desired effect of harming Mr. Gingrich’s standing.

Throughout it all, voters have faced one major question: Do they back Mr. Romney, or do they look for another champion?

“Tuesday night, 75 percent of Iowa caucus-goers say they would vote ‘not Mitt Romney.’ Will you go to New Hampshire and South Carolina and tell that story?” one young man, wearing a University of Iowa Hawkeyes jacket, asked Mr. Santorum in Coralville last week.

Voters have asked every candidate versions of that question over the past month as they try to make a final decision.

Mr. Santorum has put in the most work in Iowa of any candidate, making his 367th stop Monday morning in Polk City and telling voters to ignore the national polls.

“Do not defer your judgment to the pundits,” he said at a cafe packed with journalists from around the globe, who were eager to see the newly popular candidate.

Mr. Santorum aimed a shot at Mr. Romney, saying voters don’t need a “chief executive officer for this country,” but rather should be seeking a commander in chief.

Mr. Romney, who helmed Bain Capital, an investment firm, often points to his nongovernment experience as a key plus that will help him go toe-to-toe with President Obama.

“This is a contest about the economy and about the budget and about foreign affairs, but it’s also an election that is bigger than that,” Mr. Romney said at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport on Monday morning as he kicked off his own sprint across Iowa.

The race remains unpredictable. The Des Moines Register poll published Sunday found that two out of five likely voters said they could change their minds in the hours before the caucuses begin at 7 p.m. Central Standard Time.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Paul are seeking to defy history by winning the caucuses their second time through.

Since 1976, when the modern Iowa caucus system began for the GOP, only Bob Dole has pulled off that feat, winning both his second go-around in 1988 and his third in 1996, while the four other second-time candidates from Ronald Reagan to Sen. John McCain all failed to win.

In 2008, Mr. Romney placed second with a little more than 30,000 votes, or about 25.2 percent of caucus attendees. Despite a late infusion of cash, Mr. Paul placed fifth with 11,841 votes, or 9.9 percent.

Polling shows Mr. Romney this year still winning support from about a quarter of likely attendees, suggesting that he has not been able to break through with voters.

Predicting tough going, he put less effort into Iowa this time. He skipped last year’s straw poll in Ames, and didn’t return to Iowa until October.

By then, the candidate roulette wheel had spun again, and businessman Herman Cain was surging. A series of debates and sexual harassment allegations later, Mr. Cain withdrew from the race, leaving Mr. Gingrich at the top of the polls.

But in the Cain collapse and the volatility of the race, the Romney team began to see an opening that hadn’t been clear for months: A win here, coupled with an expected win in New Hampshire, could go a long way toward wrapping up the nomination, just as it did for another Massachusetts politician, Sen. John F. Kerry, who won the Democratic Party nomination in 2004.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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